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maternal-infant interaction, neonatal nursing, nursing interventions, nursing theory, oxytocin, regulation theory



  1. Weber, Ashley M.
  2. Harrison, Tondi M.
  3. Steward, Deborah K.


Background: Oxytocin (OT), an affiliation hormone released during supportive social interactions, provides an exemplar of how social environments are reflected in our neurobiology from the beginning of life. A growing body of OT research has uncovered previously unknown functions of OT, including modulation of parenting behaviors, neuroprotection, affiliation, and bonding. Regulation theory provides a strong framework for describing how the maternal care environment affects infant neurodevelopment through a symphony of molecules that form the neurobiological milieu of the developing infant brain.


Objectives: The purpose of this article was to expand on regulation theory by discussing how OT-based processes contribute to infant neurobiology and by proposing a new model for maternal-infant nursing practice and research.


Approach: We structure our discussion of the socially based, neurobiological processes of OT through its effects in the nested hierarchies of genetic, epigenetic, molecular, cellular, neural circuit, multiorgan, and behavioral levels. Our discussion is also presented chronologically, as OT works through a positive feedback loop during infant neurodevelopment, beginning prenatally and continuing after birth.


Implications: Nurses are in a unique position to use innovative discoveries made by the biologic sciences to generate new nursing theories that inform clinical practice and inspire the development of innovative interventions that maximize the infant's exposure to supportive maternal care.